Drug and Alcohol - Opioid Addiction

Opioid Addiction: Your Ultimate Guide

Opioid addiction is an epidemic in the US: overdoses have become one of the major causes of death. Read our ultimate guide to opioid addiction!

Opioid Addiction: Your Ultimate Guide

Table of contents

Written by

Brian MooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

Jeremy ArztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

November 22, 2022

The Edge Treatment Center

Overdose deaths remain a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Statistics show that the majority of these deaths involve opioids. Casualties involving synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly made fentanyl) and stimulants (such as cocaine and methamphetamine) have increased by 519.38% from 1999 to 2019. [NCDAS]

An opioid is a term for many natural substances (originally derived from the opium poppy) and their semisynthetic and synthetic analogs that bind to specific opioid receptors. Opioid drugs, potent analgesics with a limited role in managing cough and diarrhea, are also common drugs of abuse because of their wide availability and euphoric properties.

An opioid overdose occurs when larger quantities than physically tolerated are taken. Any early opioid overdose symptoms must not be ignored as they can result in the central nervous system and respiratory depression, miosis, and apnea, which can be fatal if not treated rapidly. Opioid tolerance develops quickly and unevenly, with escalating dose requirements.

Heroin users, for example, may become relatively tolerant to the drug's euphoric and respiratory depression results but continue to have constricted pupils and constipation.

Origins of the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at more excellent rates. Unfortunately, increased prescription of opioid medications led to widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.

As a result, the opioid epidemic is considered a public health emergency, as reported by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, with 136 deaths per day and climbing. Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, more than any previous year on record. In response to the opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officially declared a public health emergency in 2017.

The Opioid Epidemic Affects Everyone

Whether you think you have been affected by the opioid epidemic or not, chances are, you have. Regardless of where you live, your socio-economic status, race, or gender, the opioid epidemic has touched your life in some way. You may be the parent, the sibling, or a friend of someone addicted to opioids. You may know someone who has died from an opioid overdose, or you may be a first responder using Naloxone to save an opioid addict's life again. You may be a police officer trying to stop the flow of illegal opioids or an employer who has had to fire multiple employees because of their unreliability due to opioid addiction.

For so many, warning signs of opioid addiction starts with one pill: one OxyContin pill taken after surgery. One Percocet, handed out by a friend. The one turns into two, the two turn into four, and insidiously, opioid addiction takes hold.

Opioid Dependency & Addiction

Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary for survival. As you learn to tolerate the dose you have been prescribed, you may need even more medication to relieve the pain or achieve well-being, which can lead to dependency. Addiction takes hold of our brains in several ways — and is far more complex and less forgiving than many people realize.

While some patients can take a ten-day prescription of opioids following an acute short-term pain experience, feel uncomfortable for a couple of days, and return to their lives without the need for additional opioids, many do not. Instead, their lives spiral into the despair of an opioid overdose or an addiction. Within days, a physical dependency on the opioid can occur. Once this happens, progressively destructive behaviors ensue, and the following are the signs to recognize a growing opioid addiction:

  • Spending time alone

  • Losing interest in activities

  • Not bathing, changing clothes, or brushing their teeth

  • Being very tired and sad

  • Eating more or less than usual

  • Being overly energetic, talking fast, and saying things that don't make sense

  • Being nervous or cranky

  • Quickly changing moods

  • Sleeping at odd hours

  • Missing important appointments

These often progress to isolation from loved ones, drug seeking, or prescription shopping. Usually, heroin enters the picture, and risky or criminal behaviors become part of everyday life. Since these changes can occur gradually, those closest to the addict may not see what is happening until the addiction has advanced—many wonders why opioid addiction leads the addict down this path. The answer is simple: the fear of withdrawal. Almost all those who have become dependent will do just about anything to prevent withdrawal symptoms. The physical addiction to opioids is so intense that within hours after their last fix, the body experiences severe symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and skin sensitivity to the point that even putting on clothes is painful. Add the intense anxiety and paranoia from the mental symptoms of withdrawal, and you have a recipe for a horrible experience.

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Symptoms of Opioid Overdose

An overdose on opioids happens when a person takes too much of an opioid, or a combination of opioids and other drugs, at a toxic level to the body. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a person who is using opioids is very high or experiencing a life-threatening overdose. If unsure, it is best to assume there is an overdose — you could save a life.

The signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose can be identified if someone is suffering a combination of these:

  • Unresponsiveness or unconsciousness

  • Pinpoint pupils

  • Slowed or stopped breathing

  • Snoring or gurgling sounds

  • Cold or clammy skin

  • Discolored lips or fingernails

Opioid overdose is severely fatal and requires immediate emergency attention. Recognizing the patterns or behavior related to an opioid overdose is essential to saving lives. Call 911 immediately if a person exhibits ANY of the above symptoms. Family members, caregivers, or people who spend time with individuals using opioids need to know how to recognize the signs of an overdose and how to administer life-saving services until emergency medical help arrives. Individuals experiencing an opioid overdose will not be able to treat themselves. Naloxone is a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent opioid overdose. Check with your healthcare provider on how to obtain Naloxone in your state.

Opioid use can lead to death because it affects the part of the brain which regulates breathing. An opioid overdose can occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  • When a person overdoses on an illicit opioid drug such as heroin or morphine.

  • When a person overdoses on a medication used in medication-assisted treatment (MAT), many of which are controlled substances that have the potential for misuse. This can occur when someone accidentally takes an extra dose, deliberately misuses a prescription opioid, or mixes opioids with other medications, alcohol, or over-the-counter drugs. An overdose can be fatal when mixing opioid and anxiety treatment medicines, including benzodiazepines such as Xanax or valium.

  • When a person misuses an opioid-based pain medication, using not as prescribed by their physician or one prescribed for someone else. Children are particularly vulnerable to accidental overdoses if they take medication not intended for them.

Preventing Opioid Overdose

Opioid overdose can occur even with prescription opioid pain relievers and medications used in MAT, such as methadone and buprenorphine. In addition, individuals using naltrexone for MAT have a reduced tolerance to opioids; therefore, using the same or even lower doses of opioids used in the past can cause life-threatening consequences.

Always follow the instructions you receive with your medication. Ask your practitioner or pharmacist if you have questions or are unsure how to take your medication. The following tips can help you or a loved one avoid opioid overdose:

  • Take medicine as prescribed by your practitioner

  • Do not take more medication or take it more often than instructed

  • Under no circumstances mix pain medicines with alcohol, sleeping pills, or illicit substances

  • Never take medication prescribed to someone else

  • Prevent children and pets from accidental ingestion by storing your medicines out of reach

  • Discard unused medication safely. Talk to your MAT practitioner for assistance and for more information on the safe disposal of unused medications

Beyond methodologies for taking medicines correctly and decreasing drug use in the community, a few specific measures can be undertaken to prevent opioid overdose. These include:

  • Increasing the availability of opioid dependence treatment, including for those dependent on prescription opioids

  • Reducing and preventing irrational or inappropriate opioid prescribing

  • Monitoring opioid prescribing and dispensing, and

  • Limiting improper over-the-counter sales of opioids

  • Opioid Withdrawals

Opioid withdrawal symptoms may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Drug cravings

  • Anxiety/irritability

  • Insomnia

  • Abdominal pain

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Tremors

  • Feeling cold

These withdrawal symptoms generally last between three and five days, although they can last up to 10 days, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).

After experiencing symptoms of opioid overdose, the withdrawal period can be difficult and even dangerous. According to ASAM, trying to stop opioid abuse using the "cold turkey" method can result in even stronger cravings. The safest way to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms is through medically supervised treatment, which includes medicines, counseling, and support. Some medications used to relieve opioid withdrawal symptoms are methadone and buprenorphine. These medications can also be used as long-term maintenance medicine for opioid dependence.

In addition, a medication called clonidine can be used during withdrawal to help reduce anxiety, agitation, muscle aches, sweating, runny nose, and cramping. However, it does not help reduce cravings.

Breaking the Cycle of Opioid Addiction

Opioids maintain a firm hold on the users, and it's no wonder breaking the cycle for those addicted is often impossible to confront. While there is much discussion about differing stages of opioid dependence, from "misuse" to "use disorder" to "addiction," opioid use is having an adverse effect on the user not only in their personal lives but on their loved ones and their communities as well. For every opioid drug overdose that results in death, there are many more non-fatal overdoses, each with its own emotional and economic toll. This fast-moving epidemic does not distinguish age, sex, or state or county lines. People with at least one overdose are more likely to have another. If a person who has had an overdose is seen in the ED, it is possible to help prevent a repeat overdose by linking an individual to care that can improve their health outcomes.

The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across America, with effects reaching all segments of society; the costs are unprecedented. In 2017, The Council of Economic Advisors released a report titled "The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis," in which they found that the cost of the opioid crisis in 2015 alone reached $504 billion and included not only the costs of opioid fatalities on the nation but also those of non-fatal consequences as well. Between 2006 and 2011, emergency room visits specific to opioid poisoning exceeded 250,000, and the charges for these visits totaled 4 billion dollars in just these five years. This occurred before the spike in fentanyl-related overdoses even hit the street. From 2005 -2014, the increase in emergency room visits due to opioids increased by 99.4 percent. From July 2016 to September 2017, the CDC reports a 30 percent increase in emergency room visits due to opioid overdoses.

Scientists over centuries have tried over and over to develop opioids that are safe and non-addictive. Still, the end result keeps repeating: unintended consequences of misuse, addiction, and death.

So, when does the cycle end? How does it end?

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Do you have more questions about opioid addiction? Reach out.

Get Holistic Treatment for Opioid Addiction at The Edge Treatment Center

A genuinely holistic treatment approach offers more than just replacing the opioid with another less harmful opioid. Instead, it addresses the whole person and their addiction by focusing on the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects of dealing with the warnings of an opioid overdose.

While medications are helpful for the short period the person is experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, common sense is clear: You don't cure an addiction to drugs by simply taking different medicines that happen to come from a pill bottle. That is merely masking symptoms and keeping someone medicated.

The Edge Treatment Center is a leading drug addiction recovery provider. Our drug rehab provides customized treatment plans to guarantee that each person receives specialized services that can result in better and faster results. As a result, we can help you or your family and friends find relief from the symptoms of opioid overdose, opening the path to sobriety and happier life. A combination of professional therapy and one-on-one counseling is used at each stage of recovery to assist those fighting opioid addiction.

Contact us today to learn more and start your journey to freedom from opioid addiction!

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